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Saturday Essay: I too thought the unthinkable - and failed

FRANK FIELD'S current tribulations are widely interpreted as a Promethean penalty for "thinking the unthinkable", a dictum of mine from the heady days of the early Centre For Policy Studies, whose wider currency I owe to Dr Richard Cockett's book of that name on the mixed fortunes of think-tanks.

Matters are not as simple as that. But first, a backward glance at the phrase's origins. I adduced it when I was elaborating the modus operandi of the nascent centre as the second of four linked dicta. The first three were: "Question the unquestioned; think the unthinkable; blaze a trail." The first requires intellectual courage and readiness to challenge intellectual vested interests.

Unless you first clear the ground of outmoded beliefs which have failed the pragmatic test, there is no room for the unthinkable, which may often be new, but may also be older, wisdom forgotten and rediscovered. (For example, we ignore the Victorians' distinction between deserving and undeserving poor at our peril.) To think the unthinkable requires moral courage. Most people at most times and places are conservative, particularly those who benefit from the status quo, which is inextricably bound up with existing ideas and beliefs. (Beliefs are ideas which are taken for granted and for that reason are both more crucial than ideas in determining behaviour in public affairs and private life, and more difficult to dispel by new ideas, since they are hidden deeper in the consciousness and protected by mental habit.)

Thinking the unthinkable provides an impulse for action to bring reality into line with thought; otherwise, what is the point in fresh thinking, which only generates frustration? Blazing a trail calls for political courage. Safety lies with the herd; to leave it entails risk. Conviction is needed.

But that is only the beginning. At the time, I defined the innovator's role as bringing to patron or public those ideas or factual sequences and explanations which they had not heard before but which, once stated, impressed themselves as obvious, or at least worthy of a hearing. Only this could generate the initial impetus needed to shake the walls of Jericho reinforced by interlocking layers of ideas, beliefs and vested interests.

That was the position in the spring of 1974, when the Conservatives were deeply shocked by their defeat at the hands of Scargill's flying pickets and wondered whether civilisation as we knew it was not coming to an end. Keith Joseph's three words - "we were wrong" - started an avalanche. Clearly, the mood was there, awaiting arousal.

He turned to me for help since I had drafted some radical speeches and articles for him in 1969-70 before election victory swallowed him alive in the DHSS. Once again, I persuaded him to reach out to the party's mood of frustration by a radical analysis of defeat. What was soon to be known as "Thatcherism" was born. But as Machiavelli warned, great reforming projects seldom come to fruition, because all vested interests which might risk losing from change are in place and aware of interest, whereas most prospective benefactors are dispersed and unaware.

When Margaret Thatcher, whom Jospeh had co-opted into the centre and endowed with his unthinkable thoughts, rode the tide to the party leadership, the party grandees and Conservative Research Department, then under Christopher Patten, diluted her reforming zeal. It was further diluted and frustrated after election victory in 1979 placed her in the hands of the civil service and Establishment. The native hue of resolution was sicklied o'er. Paradoxically, whereas the defeats of 1974 generated the radical tide of Joseph-Thatcherism, the victories of 1975, 1979 and 1983 dissipated it, till only the grin remained.

At the CPS, I had a wonderful "unthinkable" in our locker. Was the economy really amenable to control through manipulation of the interest rate or money supply, as every government had believed, and every opposition queried since the late Forties? Keith Joseph had said "No!" in his Monetarism is not Enough, with a commendatory foreword by Thatcher. But in 1979, the new Government continued the neo-Keynsian monetary squeeze imposed by Denis Healey at the IMF's behest in 1976, with even greater intensity and Friedmanite rhetoric. The syndrome has survived the Tories' consequent misadventures and fall. On the BBC's Newsnight this week, a trades union leader, John Edmonds, complained that whereas the late John Smith, when shadow Chancellor, had excoriated the Government's unique dependence on interest-rate policy as a "one golf club" policy, Gordon Brown was still practicing it. This indicates the resistance of established ways to critical thought, just as bacteria survive antibiotics.

After the 1983 election (which was much less of a victory than it appeared at first sight, since it did not increase the Conservatives' share of the poll even when faced by Foot's depleted ranks), the CPS was de-Shermanised to bring thinking the unthinkable, which a complacent Government was beginning to find irksome, to an end. At the time, we had plenty of unthinkable questions in our war chest. Does all evidence, as well as logic, not question the certainty that transport subsidies diminish congestion and pollution and are socially progressive? Is a statutory school leaving age of 16 sustainable?; Have rent control, slum clearance, council housing and town and country planning not done more harm than good, particularly to those strata in whose name they were undertaken? Can the NHS conceivably survive in the long term?

Once it ceased to question the unquestioned and think the unthinkable, Thatcherism lacked the elixir needed to counter the onset of political mortality. The rest is history. The born-again messianism of the Seventies gave way to the tired, defensive jacks in office of the Nineties. This time round, the defeated Tories have no Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher (or, dare I say it, Alfred Sherman) to raise the standard of intellectual revolt. Like Edward Heath in his day, they eschew a self-critical view of their failed policies and blame the voting public.

But politics abhors a vacuum. The prophet's mantle descended briefly on Frank Field. Not one in 20 of those who hail him could tell you what his thoughts actually are, but that is largely irrelevant: that he is credited with thinking the unthinkable and embattled with his colleagues is recommendation enough.

A few years ago, he was well in advance of his comrades, who in opposition promised the moon, in recognising that curing poverty was not simply achievable by spending more money. But that is now common ground in the Government, whose commitments ineluctably outrun its income. Though the poor still enjoy vociferous support on Labour back benches and the churches - when not otherwise engaged - they command less votes than most claimant groups.

Neither Field nor his colleagues - nor, for that matter, the Tories - have thought the unthinkable to the point of moving beyond institutional concepts and measures, eg systems of welfare-payments, fraud-prevention and provision of work opportunities, to the nature of the welfariat, what Marx dubbed the "lumpenproletariat", and British reformers called "the submerged tenth". This entails identifying the socio-psychological characteristics which perpetuate them as a social class, an indispensable key to changing their nature and condition. This is ignored in the government Social Exclusion Unit's terms of reference, which treat the lumpenproletariat purely as objects, or victims, and ignore the paradox which was identified by De Tocqueville as long ago as 1850, that with increasing affluence poverty becomes both more chronic and more evident.

Alas poor Frank! We should also spare a tear for Harriet Harman. Unlike him, she did not think the unthinkable but actually did it, at Blair's behest, trimming welfare to the welfariat, particularly the welfare-mothers. Having attracted all the obloquy for the policy to herself personally, she was expelled into the wilderness, the archetypal scapegoat, while Frank ascends to heaven, extolled or consoled on all sides. Meanwhile, the need to think the unthinkable remains as great as ever.